When it comes to legendary DC creators, Paul Dini is in a league of his own. As a writer and producer on shows like Batman: The Animated Series, Dini was responsible for many of their greatest episodes. His original creation Harley Quinn recently starred in her second big screen adventure and is currently causing mayhem on her DC Universe original series (the second season of which arrives this Friday, April 3rd). And Dini's acclaimed Batman short story in the landmark Detective Comics #1000 has just arrived on DCU. We recently had a chance to chat with Dini about his upcoming B:TAS sequel comic series, the digital-first Batman: The Adventures Continue, and he shared his thoughts on the Birds of Prey movie and his upcoming projects with the Joker and Catwoman. Read on!
How did you come to continue Batman: The Animated Series in comics?
Let’s go way back like two years ago... DC Collectibles' Jim Fletcher and his team called me up and they said, we want to do some more figures for the Batman Animated line, and we want to use characters that have not been on the show, but you might have used at the time because they were just breaking into the comics, such as Azrael, and then later, Red Hood, and then, even later characters like Talon, but as I’ve said elsewhere, when we were doing the show, the newer characters that were coming up in the comic books, they hadn’t really seeped into our consciousness yet like Bane. Bane came while we were in production, so we worked him in, but we tried coming up with a version of Bane that we thought was maybe not the comic book version, because we didn’t really know what his origin was or a lot of things about him, so we just did an interpretation of him, and I think later times we’ve used him, they’ve been more closer to the comic book type. And so, the thing with Jason Todd was, we never did Jason Todd in the Animated Series because his story was too dark for us to do in any sort of convincing way. It deals with the Joker basically murdering Batman’s assistant, basically a boy, after brutally killing him with a crowbar. There’s no way we could do that, or even elude to that, in the Animated Series at the time. So we just sort of left that as a little pocket of Batman’s history that we’re just not going to deal with. But later on, it made sense to go there and say there is a gap in the Animated Series continuity between Dick Grayson hanging it up as Robin and then becoming Nightwing, possibly we could work it in there.
What other characters will you be adapting?
They also asked us to incorporate Azrael, along with Deathstroke, who we couldn’t use for a number of reasons, because again, just the name Deathstroke kind of prohibited using him. He’s a mercenary, killer for hire, that sort of thing. Comics are sort of fair game because comics appeal to more than just the little kids watching it, so there isn’t the network mindset that says we have to take it down a notch. So, what they originally asked me to do was come up with some origin stories for Jason and for Deathstroke, and for some of the others that could be used as part of the packaging. I wrote up a little entry on them, and some story ideas and things like that. And then that went over well, and then they decided, let’s do a comic series that really is going to introduce these characters once they hit the marketplace. With merchandise, they’re brainstorming toys you won’t see for another year or two. Now with that the Red Hood, Deathstroke, Talon, and powersuit Batman toys are ready to come out, they wanted stories that would support them, and you’d need even longer time to do that in animation, so they thought, well, let’s do comics, and let’s do some for digital first, and then collect them into books.
Were you excited to return to this world?
They asked me this last fall if I’d be interested in continuing stories, and at first I said no, because I’m just under the gun with a bunch of other projects, and I didn’t want to say yes to something that I truly love and then I would be forced out of scheduling to kind of have to juggle and maybe not do as thorough job as I wanted to on it. So then they went, and they asked B:TAS co-producer Alan Burnett, and he was intrigued as well. Alan retired full time from Warner Bros Animation about two years ago, but again, he kind of keeps his hand in here and there, and he’s never too far away from it. He was intrigued by the idea of doing it, and he also liked the idea of the two of us writing together, and he called me up and he said, ‘I’m thinking about doing this. Do you want to work on it in some way?’ the fact that Alan was up for doing it suddenly took the burden of having to brainstorm everything off me, and I always really enjoy brainstorming stories with him. Once Alan and I started talking about it we realized there could be some really good stories in here. We started exploring the stories kind of like the way that we had when we came up with Mask of the Phantasm. When we came up with an overarching thread for this story we decided we’re not just going to bring in a parade of new characters, and we’re not just going to devote a lot of time to the old favorites, and characters we knew we have a lot of fun with. We wanted to really do a story about Bruce and his relationships with his current allies, which includes Alfred, Robin, Tim Drake, and Barbara Gordon, and where he is at this point of being more acceptive, or responsive, to the ideas of working as part of a team, and as a team leader. Plus, maybe show how old decisions, bad choices, and old sins come back to haunt him in this, and how he can both be tested by that and have to confront some serious mistakes he made in the past, and maybe emerge stronger as a team leader. Once we started breaking it as a Batman story, it got really easy. And there’s still tons of cameos, and guest stars, and old favorites, and we worked as many as we could in there. But again, it’s a Bruce story.
In the process of doing this series, did ideas come to you for further adventures set in this continuity?
Oh, we always have ideas. Occasionally we say, we could hold on to that for something else, or do a little something with this down the road. But let’s see how these first six go, and let’s see if readers respond to it. We know we have a tremendous fan cache, and there’s been a lot of interest in picking up the books and checking them out online, but the proof will be in the sales and how well the books are received, how well they sell, and I assume how well the toys do.
You have a great bibliography of work at DC. What are some of your favorite comic stories?
As far as my best stuff, I think Mad Love is a must. That kind of goes without saying. I’m very fond of certain one-shot stories that I did in Detective Comics, like issue 824 with Don Kramer. He did some really good stuff. I really liked the story "Slayride" that I did with Don. I think we were both firing on all cylinders. I’m very grateful that every Christmas, a lot of people come back and they say, "Man, that Joker Christmas story was really intense." Then a year later, we did what’s almost a two-part sequel to it. Zatanna has to bring Batman in to help her solve a murder mystery, and that leads to kind of a horrifying revelation about who the mystery villain is -- the Joker. I also loved issue 841 with Dustin Nguyen.
The first appearance of March Harriet?
March Harriet, yeah. And lo and behold, she popped up in the LEGO Batman Movie. [Laughs.] Mad Hatter isn’t even in the movie, but they got her hopping around in a bunny suit. That was so awesome. I decided I’d better write some stories about her so that kids won’t grow up confused thinking there was a Playboy bunny running around in there. So I sat down and I wrote an origin story with her, and Emmanuelle Lupacchino did a terrific job illustrating (in 2018’s Batgirl #25). That was a fun one.
Yeah, if I could have a reprint volume of anything, it would be all the little shorts I’ve done over the years. There’s a great Batman: Black and White story with Stephane Roux. I did a really funny Harley Quinn story with Neal Adams (in 2016’s Batman Annual #1). I would love to have those all together in one little volume. I think that would be a lot of fun.
What most appeals to you about writing Batman?
I enjoyed any story that allowed me to use Bruce Wayne as a detective, and that’s why I was really happy to write the one-shots that I did with Don. I kind of kept a rule in my head that Bruce Wayne is Batman all the time, but he only puts on the suit when he needs either anonymity or the special enhancements the suits and the car and everything give him. He should be a detective both in and out of the suit. So once I approached it that way, giving him that kind of Sherlock Holmes [aspect], always analyzing people, an ability that he can’t really turn off, that brought a very interesting dimension to him, and one that I don’t think I could really entirely capture in animation. That was the advantage of having text on the page, that you could really kind of walk through Bruce’s thought process as he saw and figured out if they were innocent or not. The one I did with Dustin that I really enjoyed was "Heart of Hush," which was more of an ongoing continuity, but that was fun.
Zatanna is another character you’ve put your own spin on.
Well, the Zatanna stories were always a joy to do. It was fun working with a character who is kind of all-powerful, once she focuses and once she really summons the magic, but also, has to live in the real world, and what’s that like? What is the line between being a superhero, a performer, and just a regular person? It’s a lot of things to juggle, and I like that. I grew up in a house where my father was a performer. I used to see that split between having to be around the house when he was going out singing or something like that. Then, certainly when I met Misty, the whole thing kind of came into real life. Misty Lee, my wife, is a magician, and she balances her day-to-day life at home with me, and everything she’s doing there with her business as a performer. That’s when I see her the happiest, when she’s working out something, when she’s actually in the workshop, and she’s actually creating something. A lot of that filtered into Zatanna, so much though that Misty would be reading an issue and go, "Well you took that didn’t you?" It’s fun.
You also had a great run on Gotham City Sirens, the team-up book spotlighting the bad girls of Gotham.
Gotham City Sirens, I just liked all those characters. I love the dynamic of the three not-so-heroines, living together and having this kind of crazy rooming arrangement, where they all kind of banded together because it was safety in numbers. They were all fun.
It gave you another opportunity to write Harley Quinn. Speaking of whom... What are your thoughts on Birds of Prey?
Oh I loved it. I thought it was great. I thought it was a blast. This movie would not have gotten made at all without Margot Robbie’s passion and involvement, and she was campaigning for a Harley movie very strongly, I think before they even started shooting Suicide Squad. She recognized the value in the character and knew audiences were going to enjoy her in Suicide Squad. She and Christina Hodson worked together on it, and they brought in Cathy Yan as the director. This was a passion project for all of them, and I think they really got the essence of the character down, and they made her quite a lot of fun and appealing in so many ways. She’s not totally the animated version, and it’s not totally the Jimmy [Palmiotti] and Amanda [Conner] version, but it kind of borrows from all of them and creates its own reality and its own fun. There are so many moments in that movie that I just think are wonderful.
It’s rare that we get to see a group of women fighting together.
Yes and sharing hair ties! [Laughs.] I have one wish from Birds of Prey: I hope everybody has someone in their life that gets looked at the way that Harley looks at her breakfast sandwich. She stares at it with abject adoration. At the [premiere] party Robbie asked, "Was there anything wrong in the movie?" I said, "It was the breakfast sandwich. It was so good I wanted to leave and have one. And I mourned its death." One other thing I said to her... When I saw her running, laughing hysterically, pushing a shopping cart full of Peeps, I said, "That’s my girl." All those little impish things that she did in the movie -- sitting down eating cereal, watching Tweety Bird cartoons, and just kind of skipping through life cheerfully oblivious of the devastation she’s caused -- that’s Harley.
Can you talk about your next projects?
I wrote a few short stories for the upcoming 80th anniversary books for the Joker and for Catwoman. There’s a solo Catwoman story where I introduce a new villain, which could be a lot of fun. It’s a sort of villain that I wanted to introduce to that world for a long time, and I can see possibly doing something more with it down the road. Then there was a Joker story, again, a kind of Joker story I’ve always wanted to tell. I’m very happy to see those both out there, because occasionally I’ll just have an idea for a weird little one-shot and file them away. The Joker story, it sort of popped into my head. I actually had a dream about it, and then I wrote it down, and the story itself is sort of a dream. I told Misty about it. When I told her what it was, she goes, "That’s kind of good..." And when I saw it rendered, I realized that Riley Rossmo, the artist, had taken it to a totally different level. What he did with it was really terrific.